Carole Nuckton

Open-fire cooking is still prevalent in developing countries around the world. That is, some three billion people are still cooking by burning wood, coal, dung or other solid fuels.

Clean air contains less than 15 micrograms of fine particles per cubic inch. Five times that amount will set off a smoke alarm. Three hundred times as much — roughly what an open fire produces — will slowly kill you. Open fires produce a swirl of chemicals in their smoke that kills a million and a half people a year, plus causing or compounding a long list of disabilities from pneumonia to low IQ. Using a well-made stove can clean the air.

The Stove Camp in Cottage Grove began 10 years ago as a kind of hippie Manhattan Project, bringing together the best minds in the field to solve a problem: How to build cheap, durable, clean-burning stoves for three billion people.

The Aprovecho Research Center at the Stove Camp creates and produces efficient stoves, as well as working to improve the efficiency of stoves that are submitted to them. There are practically always ways to make any stove more efficient. The Center recently delivered 200 stoves to Darfur. It’s also working on 100-liter institutional stoves to ship to refugee camps, hospitals and schools abroad. One of these red-hot slow cookers can provide many nutritional meals for a large crowd.

The Stove Camp and the Research Center have worked hard on their mission, despite being chronically underfunded. Recently, however, their work has attracted much attention due to its strong tie to global warming concerns. An average cooking fire produces about as much carbon dioxide as a car, but it also produces a great deal of soot of black carbon, a substance 700 times more warming than CO2.

Now, people are beginning to realize that cleaning up the emissions from three billion people by providing them with efficient stoves could well be the fastest, cheapest way to cool the planet. It seems that killing a million and a half people a year has barely been noticed, while addressing global warming is generating a great deal of serious interest, along with better access to funding.

Meanwhile, Guatemala is doing something important to improve the health of its people. Since 1989, Guatemala Habitat for Humanity has built and sold over 50,000 homes to families in need of affordable housing. Recently Habitat Guatemala has taken on new huge effort — to install at least 1,000 improved (smokeless) stoves every year.

While these Guatemala stoves are not as efficient as those being created, tested, and produced at the Aprovecho Research Center, they do have chimneys so families are not having to breathe smoke.

In Guatemala, families getting an improved stove are not Habitat homeowners, as Habitat families already have better stoves. Families getting a stove are too poor to qualify for a Habitat house. They earn their stoves by making the adobe bricks required for the stove — 14 large bricks form the base; another 30 smaller bricks make up the fire place and the oven. The chimney and the stovetop are purchased by Habitat from China. Someone in each stove family is also required to attend classes on topics such as stove maintenance and nutritious cooking. In June 2012, our Habitat team of volunteers from Bend assembled three improved stoves, as well as helping build two more houses.

Note that much of this information is from the article “Hearth Surgery” by Burkhard Bilger in the Dec. 21-28, 2009 New Yorker. Also reported is information from a recent personal visit to the Stove Camp in Cottage Grove, as well as from a June 2012 trip to Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity. Although this article is not drawn from its information, there is an excellent article on this topic in the December 2012 Smithsonian magazine.